Cave paintings: Radiocarbon dating, a penguin, plus fakes

Carbon dating for the Altamira caves, a penguin troubles sceptics at the submerged Grotte Henri Cosquer, and the sponge is a give-away at Alave


Hailed two years ago as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Europe, the painted caves at Alave in northern Spain are decorated with images of animals, symbols and splashes of colour. The results of further tests released this summer have proved them to be skilful fakes. The Spanish student who discovered them is now thought to have painted the cave with natural pigments but using modern rubber sponges, fragments of which were found on the walls. Presumably more by good luck than judgement, the Spanish student avoided the use of charcoal underdrawing in his scheme at Alave. Such underdrawing has now provided a significantly more accurate way of dating the famous palaeolithic cave paintings at Altamira and El Castillo, Spain, and Niaux in the French Pyrenees has been developed by a team of French and Spanish scientists. Until recently the dating of the famous wall paintings of bison and other animals relied largely on external evidence such as the dating of bones and other remains found in the caves, together with stylistic analysis of the paintings. The traditional C14 carbon dating method could not be used on the walls as the process consumes the object being tested. Using radiocarbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry, which requires much less material, means that only a tiny amount of the charcoal underdrawing is required for an accurate dating to be obtained. At Altamira three bisons at the centre of the painted ceiling were sampled and produced a mean average dating of 14,000 BP* plus or minus 400 years. This is consistent with the previous dating of the paintings to Early Style IV, placing them in the Early Magdalenian era. At El Castillo two adjacent bisons were dated to 13,060 BP plus or minus 200, and 12,910 BP plus or minus 180. At the French Pyreneean cave of Niaux a bison painting in the Salon Noir was found to be 12,890 BP plus or minus 160 years old. The findings mean that, contrary to previous opinion, people of the same cultural background may have been responsible for the paintings at El Castillo and Niaux. In general, however, the authors of the article point out that this type of method may not be applicable to other caves as many paintings of this type contain little if any datable pigment. Stylistic methods of dating will still be needed in the forseeable future.

The new method may prove useful in resolving a number of rather incongruous features which have emerged in relation to the paleolithic cave paintings discovered in September 1991 in a cave thirty-seven metres below sea level between Marseilles and Cassis (see The Art Newspaper No. 14, January 1992, p.14). In addition to the horses, stag, bison, seals and marine birds scratched and painted into the cave’s surface, the image of a penguin has been detected. Other odd features include the representation of hands—one with the fingers cut off, the other painted red—and the fact that the lower edge of the painted horses coincides very neatly with the water level. Replying to these cricitisms (which have raised the possibility of an elaborate forgery) in the newspaper El Pais, the Spanish pre-historian Antonio Beltran noted that although he had not previously been aware of depictions of penguins, rare animals such as snow hares and seals were found in cave paintings.

*BP=before present: a method of dating by radio-carbon years (which are variable in length and not entirely approximate to calendar years). The dating works back from 1950.